Window on our past: a 19th-century poem from al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem. Photo: British Library EAP, photoshopped by Matthew Ward
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"The memory of the world": British attempts to save endangered Middle Eastern artefacts

Rescuing and preserving Middle Eastern texts and artefacts in the "post-custodial" age.

How much history did Isis burn in Mosul’s central library earlier this year? It seems grimly appropriate that it is difficult to find evidence to verify the worst estimates of 1,500 manuscripts and 100,000 books destroyed.

We are perhaps more used to states marking their territory by taking custody of the archives of weaker powers, even when that, in effect, amounts to kidnap. The British Library has material from all over the world collected during the days of empire; by 1979, however, Philip Larkin, a librarian as well as a poet, was trying to stop the flow of British literary manuscripts to the US.

Taking custody isn’t always a protective measure. Israel holds 6,000 Palestinian books and manuscripts collected from western Jerusalem after its victory in the 1948 war, but destroyed 24,000 it considered irrelevant or hostile.

According to the book From Dust to Digital, edited by Maja Kominko and published in February to mark the tenth anniversary of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), we now live in a “post-custodial” age. The programme removes nothing from its original location, so communities retain the ability to tell their own histories. Instead, money from the charitable Arcadia Fund is used to give grants to help people digitise at-risk or inaccessible material; the scanned images then go to the nearest possible institution and on to the Endangered Archives website (eap.bl.uk). The 19th-century copy of an Islamic poem printed above is one of “four million individual windows into the human past” gathered over the past decade: a photoshopping together of two of the 87,658 individual photographs of manuscripts taken in the library of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

If the numbers are difficult to comprehend, so is the history they reflect. Because the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam overlay it at different angles, the land around the library is perhaps the most fought over in the world. In 2000, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, a few metres away, triggered the five-year-long Second Intifada, which killed as many as 4,000 people.

Al-Aqsa’s collection of Islamic manuscripts is one of the most important in the world, according to Unesco. Its newspaper archives also show the Palestinian perspective on the rising numbers of Jewish settlers, the 1917 Balfour Declaration in support of a Jewish state, British control between 1917 and 1948 and what Palestinians call al-Naqba (“the catastrophe”): the 1948 conflict that passed most of the area into Israeli control. Now they can browse its library from anywhere with an internet connection. Although the mosque is administered by a Jordanian trust, Palestinians can gain access to it only with a permit – or, during one of the many outbreaks of violence, not at all.

So far, the EAP has given out £6m in 244 grants and has received images of a vast compendium of medieval Jewish life known as the Cairo Genizah, beautiful illuminated manuscripts by Ethiopian Christians, ethnographic photographs of Soviet Siberia and scrolls that survived the annihilation of the northern Chinese Tangut people in the 13th century. There has been nothing, as yet, from Iraq. For much of the world, the “British” in the project’s title contradicts the “post-custodial” ideal.

“If this is the memory of the world,” the EAP argues, “the world needs [to be able] to access it.” Accordingly, all of the material is freely available, and captioned in five languages. It’s easy to get carried away: the UN estimates that only 40 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet, and, whatever the precautions, we have no way of knowing how long these images will outlast their physical counterparts. Yet, for the foreseeable future, the EAP represents a new kind of archive – a utopian monument to curiosity.

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In independent Kosovo, families still search for their missing children

A decade after Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence, questions remain unanswered. 

On a Wednesday afternoon in March 1999, Albion Kumnova was rounded up with five other men by policemen and put in the back of a van. From the four policemen kicking in the door to the vehicle speeding away, everything happened so quickly that Albion didn’t have time to put his shoes on.

Albion’s portrait sits above the television in his parents’ sitting room in Gjakova, Kosovo. He has thick, dark hair and a handsome face. Whenever she gets a message or phonecall, his mother’s phone lights up with a picture of him on holiday by the sea in Montenegro. Nesrete Kumanova has waged an intense war to find out what happened to her son, who was 21 when he was disappeared.

This weekend marks 10 years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A decade before that, brutal fighting erupted between Serbs and Albanians. The subsequent war claimed thousands of lives and further entrenched the split between the two ethnic groups. Between 1998 and 2000, 13,535 people were killed or went missing.

Gjakova was particularly badly affected by fighting. Now, Albanian flags are displayed prominently throughout the town, and there’s a strong anti-Serb sentiment. As Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s, Serbia was determined that the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo should remain just that - a province, not a country. From late February 1998, Serbs and Albanians were at war for control over the country, which today has a population of just 1.8 million, and is a mixture of Albanians and Serbs, although the latter in the minority.  

“Every family has at least one person who went missing,” Nesrete says. Some families have as many as 10 missing. They feel unable to mourn them as dead, just in case something miraculous happens.

In 2002, after the war had ended, Nesrete got together with other parents to lobby for information about what happened to their loved ones. They staged hunger strikes, one lasting as long as 16 days, and protested in Gjakova and Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The experience of hunger was overwhelming. “Being sad and when you have your pain with you, it’s very hard to handle it. But it’s the only choice I had,” says Nesrete. Their action had some impact, as some captives held in Niš, Serbia, were liberated. But her son was not in that group. She founded an organisation, Mothers’ Appeal, which is still going today. How many captives there were, and what has happened to them, remains unclear and a source of intense pain. 

“Without doing what we’ve done, nothing would move,” she says. “We thought we should be more active. Unfortunately, dead bodies are brought back to Kosovo – or their remains at least – and there are 1,600 others still missing from Gjakova.” 

Pristina city centre is decorated with banners and swags in preparation for the 10 year anniversary of independence. In Nesrete’s home, though, there’s nothing to celebrate.

“The independence of Kosovo has no meaning to families missing their loved ones,” she says. “The most important part of our life is still missing.”

The Kosovo government set up a commission for missing persons and gives monthly pensions to families of missing people. However, Nesrete criticises the government for inactivity and giving her false hope. “Everyone says: ‘this is going to happen’ but the result is almost nil. Every time there’s a knock on our doors, there’s another lie. I still don’t know what happened to my son.”

Many Serbs also lost family members in the fighting, but dialogue is impossible for Albanians, says Nesrete. “Serbs are all the same, they have always been like that,” she says. “Almost all of them are criminals. We have no faith in them. Even in the past in our grandparents’ time, they hung out together. They would keep an axe under their pillow and think about how to murder an Albanian. When they are born, they’re born criminals.”

The interpreter who has been sitting on a sofa adjacent to hers pauses, and exhales. “I’m sorry for translating this, but this is exactly what she said.”

To puncture partisan sentiment and show the catastrophe on both sides, Bekim Blakaj, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a long-established human rights organisation, has been helping to compile a book of every single missing or murdered person across Kosovo from 1998-2000. The project, undertaken by the centre, has been gruelling but necessary. “Our aim is to have a narrative for each and every person and a factual history. It is to stop the manipulation of numbers of victims and denial,” he says. “Albanians use some incredible numbers, that Serbian forces have killed more than 20,000 Albanians, which is not entirely true.”

The NGO goes into schools to do workshops, and Bekim says the children routinely cannot believe that Serbs were killed by Albanian fighters. Ten years after independence, Serb and Albanian children who were born after the war are still often picking up biased narratives from friends and relatives.

Each person listed in HLC's book has an average of eight sources to verify what happened. The work has been emotional and exhausting and several researchers were so burned out that they had to resign.

“It’s very hard because you have to be clear to the families that you can’t help them and you are just documenting what happened,” says Bekim. “But despite that they keep phoning you and you feel very bad when you can’t really do anything, especially when it comes to the missing persons. That’s the worst. But they keep calling you back.” Bringing victims together has helped some of them soften slightly. "At first they looked at each other as though they were enemies," says Bekim. "But then they realised that both sides were suffering and that they were victims with the same needs. Nowadays the situation is different – they are trying to cooperate."

Likewise, Nesrete has compiled a book with Mothers’ Appeal – it’s a list of people in Gjakova who went missing, with exactly what happened to them. It won’t bring Albion back, or give a gravestone or a funeral or any real closure, but it’s something. It’s all she may ever have.